Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Sigh.

So, this would have been a good book for me to read five years ago. The first two thirds of the book are a solid readable introduction to trans issues. Serano covers a lot of history, and a lot of topics that continue to be important. As a GWSS graduate it’s stuff I’m familiar with, presented well, but not adding a whole lot. Maybe this would be a good book to pass along to my mother.

Generally speaking, I am not about this sort of theory. This construction, being about something or not, is something I picked up lately, and it’s so useful. It isn’t that this is bad or anything — I’m just not about it. This is not the kind of theory I’m interested in engaging with. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, I don’t disagree with Serano on any big idea levels, but I’m not about this.

I kept on getting frustrated by how Serano never pushes as much as I would. She criticizes specific psychological ideas, or specific sociological studies, while I’m much more dismissive of both fields. She brings up very valid criticisms of how trans people are medicalized, but seems to believe there’s something salvageable in the system, instead of calling out the whole huge fucked up medical industrial complex. I am not about that.

I was also frustrated by the way she critiques pop culture. It’s easy to say that something is a bad representation, but I want to hear why we should care about these texts at all. How is this bad representation getting shown to the world? Are their redeeming artistic values, or no? Saying that something is a bad representation doesn’t give me enough information. This is about me, and what I want from a piece of theory, which isn’t something everyone wants, but it isn’t something I got here.

She has a lot of criticism of deconstructionism, which I am not about. She makes a good argument that some of Foucault’s work is exploitive, but he winds up with some really cool theory to think about. Yes, a lot of people misread Butler, and that’s terrible, it really is. But Butler herself is aware of how serious gender can be, and misreadings of Butler have still turned into some cool shit. I realize I’m saying this from a position of privilege, but… I care about interesting ideas. I care about theory that’s exciting to think about. You can critique something, you should critique something, and you can still get excited about it! I am not excited by Serano’s theory.

Serano is talking about serious stuff that can have serious life or death implications. Transmisogyny is a big deal. But I’m not about valuing theory that “matters” over theory that’s more… theoretical, and less connected to reality.

She spends a lot of time critiquing fucked up trans exclusionary feminists, which fair, they’re terrible. But there are two strains, the ones in the wild, who are around doing terrible things, and then the writers who she’s referencing as though they were still a strong voice in academic feminism. Which I feel pretty confident saying is not the case. These are not respected scholars. There are many valid criticism of academic feminism, but it actually isn’t a static field. Recognizing this history is important, but also, this is history. (I’m also sick of criticism of the second wave that talks about how fucked up they were without even faintly acknowledging that they made a big step. They were super fucked up about a ton of stuff, but if we’re writing about feminism they’re an important part of our lineage.)

I am not about her approach to identity politics. I’m not about most approaches to identity politics, and she didn’t offer anything to make me rethink this position. I’m so sick of talking about identity politics.

The last third of the book, which is essays, has a lot more of Serano’s own experiences and opinions, and is more interesting. But it does make the book seem more disjointed. It’s a lot of different ideas thrown together, and some of them are more compelling. She invents the word effemimania, which is useful and cool. Serano’s background in science shows, which brings a different approach to some issues, which was cool to see. This book is at it’s strongest when she is using her experiential knowledge to support or dispute other ideas.

Despite everything you just read, I did think this was a good book, and a valuable book. I also found it incredibly frustrating, but that probably says more about me than the book itself. This book would be a good introduction to someone who hasn’t read a lot on the subject, or if you’re specifically interested in thinking about trans misogyny and how femininity is constructed. I could see myself coming back to this book as a source if I was writing. It was also super fucking frustrating.

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